Are Focus Groups Really as Effective as We Think?
Today’s competitive arena in pharma marketing and business demands tapping into the psyche of consumers, physicians, and everyone in between, including family members and medical professionals. While the debate of qualitative vs. quantitative research and which one is superior is a long-winded one, the challenge in the current world of marketing is to blend the two in order to gain actionable results in reaching these crucial groups of people.
The Crucial Market Research
Leading pharma companies recognize the importance of market research, which includes competitive intelligence, customer insights, product positioning, and behavioral trends. They are aware that they must understand patient and physician behaviors, perspectives, and attitudes in order to successfully and effectively position new products in the market.
While it’s true that there are several types of methods used to gain quantitative market information, a mainstay for qualitative input is the focus group.
Is your pharmaceutical company getting all you can from your focus group research efforts?
Specialists believe that pharma can realize value that goes beyond the primary objectives of research and gain better insight and data by identifying more targeted objectives, using improved technologies, and developing better designed studies overall.
Focus Groups and Pharma Marketing
One of the main reasons focus groups are used is to determine the practices, attitudes, and knowledge of those who are participating. These groups are also an effective way to obtain guidance on clinical trials, test promotional elements, and make decisions for products.
However, experts advise that focus groups do provide valuable information – but the results are qualitative, and not quantitative. This is one common mistake made by pharma companies today.
“Focus groups shouldn’t be used for quantitative measurement,” Dr. Vanderveer, Ph.D., CEO of V2 Inc., says. “The unit of analysis when 10 doctors are together is really the group. It doesn’t make sense to say 6 out of 10 doctors in the group said `x.’ Because physicians play off each other, we don’t get a pure read of the knowledge, attitudes, and practices of any one physician in the group.”
“The rest is generally spent on quantitative types of market research, ranging from the use of the Internet to conducting surveys, tracking studies, modeling discrete choice studies, and using statistical metrics,” he says.
Furthermore, some companies run focus groups that are quasi quantitative in nature, says Ken Berwitz, President of Ken Berwitz Marketing Research and the National Qualitative Centers, Inc. “Clients have the moderator ask one question, get an answer from everybody, and then ask the next question, with no probing, interaction, or synergy from members of the group,” he says. “This really isn’t a focus group. The purpose of the focus group is not to come to conclusions; at least it shouldn’t be. The purpose should be to get ideas and direction, which are then tested quantitatively in a statistically viable way.”
Other Common Mistakes Pharma Marketers Make
Another mistake commonly made by companies is that they use results as the only vehicle for making decisions. Instead, they should use research as “fodder’ for marketing decisions. Phil Deschamps, President of Gerbig, Snell/Weisheimer says, “Human nature is to rely on objective metrics to make decisions. The lure of being able to say `market research said so’ is a shield. Market research should be used as a sword to help us make better marketing decisions.”
Ron Brand, group director of salesforce effectiveness consulting at IMS Health agrees: “Primary research is important, but it shouldn’t be used in isolation,” he says. “There is additional information that can be brought to bear for segmentation purposes. To extract greater value, marketers have to link those primary variables with a physician’s demographics and behaviors in terms of prescribing patterns and with other influences such as managed care. Combining all of these elements presents a more complete and actionable picture.”
Select the Right Methods
One of the first decisions companies must make when it comes to market research is to select the right methodology for its objectives, whether it be a survey, interviews, focus groups, or online sessions. Start by taking into account all the business decisions that require third party input, then decide how to best gain meaningful data. Focus groups should be used to obtain knowledge that extends farther than the objectives of a particular research project.
Regardless of the methodology chosen, pharma marketers must make sure that personal bias doesn’t skew results – this is especially true in a focus group setting, since interpretation of results is subjective. To guard against bias, more than one person should interpret the results.
In addition to the need to be careful when interpreting information is the need for a well-controlled environment.
Justina Lambert, VP of marketing at SigmaTau Pharmaceuticals Inc. explains, “During focus-group sessions, often there are people who have very strong opinions or personalities and naturally that person begins to influence the opinions of the other participants. During one focus group, we had a participant who was very outspoken about our product and had a negative perception about dialysis patients in general. After a very short period of time, we started to see the other focus group participants clam up or follow the lead of this outspoken person rather than presenting their own opinions and ideas. That skews the entire focus group. But by using backup survey data we can ensure the results of a focus group are valid.”
Improve Your Marketing Process
Today, the best way to get the most from your pharma company’s market research budget is to invest the resources and time needed for proper implementation. Proper planning is crucial to yield the best results. Oftentimes, pharma groups look for the easiest, quickest, and cheapest approach for research, but it isn’t always the best way. Technology is the key to interpreting data and gaining insights from collected information. This will help reveal to upper management what the “real world is like” by assembling a presentation of realistic interviews.
Physicians and Pharma Marketing
An effective way to obtain that “real world” outlook is to get doctors out of “doctor mode.” According to Deschamps, “The methodology of the focus group, the ability of the moderator, and the questions should be structured to remove doctors from their analytical comfort zone,” he says. “Doctors are trained to look unemotionally at situations and to come up with the best logical and left-brain approach to treat their patients. In the context of a focus group, where more often than not a company is trying to determine product positioning or marketing concepts, it is important to have the physician become a consumer.”
He goes on to explain that the manner in which physicians answer questions also leads to vital information. “When the moderator asks, `how would you diagnose a particular patient?’ or `what’s going through your mind?’, it takes physicians back to their comfort zone and we lose the opportunity to have them provide a sincere, honest reaction because these are questions they answer many times in the course of a day. Someone listening in on a focus group we may hear a lot of conversation, but we’re really not learning anything new. By taking physicians out of their comfort zone and asking the right questions, we can tap into their emotions. Such as, `what emotion do you have when you see a patient with a certain disease?’ Or, `how did you feel when you were able to satisfactorily treat the patient?’ By getting physicians to open up emotionally, focus groups give marketers some insight into their psyche and provide information that we can capitalize on.”
The Trap of Doing Too Much with Too Little Time
Companies must remain realistic with their expectations; questions that will be asked need to be carefully and thoughtfully designed. The moderator has to be well-versed and experienced in orchestrating the flow of discussions, maintaining the right timing, and asking the right questions at the best opportunities.
“Often clients add too many components and the outcome is a history of pharmaceuticals part one,” Mr. Berwitz says. “When that happens, the moderator is forced to cut off rich discussions, which would have yielded important information, in order to cover everything on the agenda. Companies need to prioritize and identify the most important elements to be addressed. Instead of having 10 issues up for discussion, cut the number down to six. Unless those critical issues are identified and there is enough time to fully explore them, all the richness of the focus group is lost. Focus groups can’t be treated as economy centers.”
“The questions that the moderator is asking are vital to ensure that the company is getting the exact information that it is looking for,” Ms. Lambert says. “Often companies have a list of questions, then leave them in the hands of the individuals or the group who is conducting the focus group. Naturally at the end of the process, the company may very well not get what it is looking for.”
Strategies for Successful Pharma Marketing Research
To get the most out of your pharmaceutical marketing research, according to Chris Bogan,
President and DEO of Best Practices, LLC, you must:
- Conduct research earlier in the development cycle
- Develop market research specialists familiar with specific therapeutic areas
- Understand how to appropriately use outsourced resources
- Apply new tools and technology to market research
- Distribute and share market research within a global enterprise
- Work toward market research that is brand specific and therapeutically relevant
- Identify minimal critical standards for research
- Organize a group of people within the organization to make decisions about promotion
One pharmaceutical company that is using online focus groups is Reliant Pharmaceuticals LLC, which has done a few pilot programs.
Ron Calderone, chief information officer at Reliant concludes, “One of the key reasons we looked to online tactics was cost savings — travel savings of our staff and of participants and rental facilities,” he says. “If we can make it easier on participants, this is a benefit. And it clearly benefits us because we’re able to capture information in a more structured environment.”
Be sure you stay up to date with the very latest pharma marketing developments; attending one of our recommended pharma conferences is a great way to hone your marketing skills and expand your reach effectively and appropriately to maximize the value your pharma marketing gains from its research dollars.